Falling asleep to the squeaking of the Singer sewing machine may not have been an ideal way to turn in for the night, but in our household it had always been the comforting sound of security.
As long as my mother peddled away into the wee hours of the morning I knew I would have pocket money, decent shoes and an extra white shirt or two to go with my school pinafore.
How many times I’d hollered out to Mum that a customer was at the door for collection. Even passed on the sari blouses she had so carefully sewn, wrapped in a transparent, red, plastic bag that shopkeepers used to pack groceries, without a single thought to the toil that had gone into those blouses.
I suppose we all had a little bit of dad in us. Loving, but irresponsible. Possessing good intentions, but poor at execution.
Deep down, we had known our family was different.
While the only notice that had to be given to other parents for a school excursion was the length of time it took to sign the approval form, for us, it entailed no less than three week’s notice.
In order to provide us with the meagre food and bus fare and just-in-case pocket change, a whole lot of shuffling went on in our household and somewhere between trimming the grocery list and postponing the repair work on Mum’s favourite Indian slippers, the money would miraculously turn up.
The bigger life’s challenge, the higher my mother rose to meet it. When it was time for all three of us to further our education, we received a most encouraging start. Three bright-eyed kids, armed with only a portion of our college fees and a double portion of Mum’s determination, hopped on a plane to our respective universities across the seas.
Throughout the years, the money she had given us ran out, but not our perseverance. It saw us through odd jobs, scholarships and remarkable grades.
When the dreaded phone call came to say dad had passed away, I was in my second year of studying law in London. I thought I’d never miss the man. After all, it was mum who helped us with homework, who gave us our allowance, who taught us to pray.
After spending all his money on friends and relatives, my dad had nothing left over. In the twenty-three years of my life until his death, I received only one birthday present from him.
To the outside world, he was the lord of the house. At a relative’s wedding, he would proudly step forward bearing the gift. Only we knew mum had bought it. Yet she would be beaming, happy to stay in the shadows.
But watching him lying in the coffin, I knew a part of me had died with him. He was my father – for better or for worse. Suddenly his shortcomings did not matter anymore. His kindness flooded my mind.
The times he cooked us a meal when mum was busy working. When he fed us hot soup as we lay in our beds with a fever. I fervently wished I could have told him I loved him before he died. My bitterness at his inadequate role as a father had tainted my judgment.
I turned around and saw the grief that stooped my mother’s shoulders, which all of life’s difficulties could not bend, and I cried. At that moment, I understood that she no more tolerated him than she tolerated us. It was never about tolerance. It was all about unconditional love.
Seeking a quiet moment of solace by myself in the storeroom, I unwittingly stumbled upon the old sewing machine. Its square iron pedal, discoloured where my mother’s feet had pressed. The sturdy brown cables around the wheel, now frayed.
I had lost the chance to part with my father on amicable terms. I thought my mother’s fierce determination was all I needed to succeed.
I had wrestled out of life only a superficial success. The driving force that steered her determination instead brought much fulfilment. And that force was her capacity to love.
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